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East: Brain Drain -- Southern Regions Bear The Brunt (Part 2)

During the last decade, the migration of skilled workers, often called the "brain drain," has affected Central and Eastern European countries. But its extent is a matter of conjecture. While there is some anecdotal evidence and much talk of losing some of the "best and the brightest," accurate information is unavailable. This is not surprising. Some specialists who have gone abroad are living there illegally, some intend to return soon, most have not notified the authorities of their departure.

In relatively successful countries, like the Czech Republic, there are doubts whether it makes sense to talk of a brain drain at all. Since many specialists return home, "brain circulation" may be a more proper term. In contrast, in Southeastern Europe, where intractable social and economic problems -- even war -- have been part of everyday life, the outward migration has been substantial.

This second of a series of three articles on the brain drain takes a look at the especially difficult situation in the Balkans.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Troubled economies, political instability, severe unemployment, and in some cases wars have spurred especially high levels of emigration from Southeastern Europe.

While precise figures are scarce, estimates put the number of migrants from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania at almost a million people during the past 12 years.

Experts say the main problems remain high unemployment and low salaries. Workers in the three countries make, on average, just 1/20 of the income they could make doing the same jobs in Western Europe.

But analysts say another important factor is diminishing expectations. In many cases, workers -- especially young and educated people -- leave because they don't believe the situation will improve anytime soon.

Professor Andrei Marga, Romania's former education minister, has studied the brain-drain phenomenon in the region. Marga told RFE/RL, "Undoubtedly, young people leave [south] eastern [European] countries and, of course, Romania, not only because they do not have [high] salaries, but also because they do not see any perspective for development in future, for themselves or for the social environment, for the world around them."

Migration has affected Yugoslavia -- Serbia and Montenegro -- to the greatest extent. The Yugoslav wars in the 1990s did more than kill off a generation of young men, it drove hundreds of thousands of people out of the region in search of security and work.

Estimates put the number of emigrants at around 400,000 since 1990, but the real figure could be much higher.

Vladimir Grecic, an economics professor at the University of Belgrade, tells RFE/RL that of that 400,000 figure, more than 30,000 were educated professionals.

"[The number of people who emigrated] overseas [is estimated at] 73,000, and including Europe and other parts of the world in the period between 1990-2000, about 400,000 people left Serbia and Montenegro altogether, among them, about 30,000 professionals."

Grecic says the figures are not complete, since they include only those who left the country legally.

Emigration is most common among the professions the region needs the most -- including doctors, engineers, and computer programmers.

In Bulgaria, a country of some 8 million with an 18 percent unemployment rate, the National Statistic Institute earlier this year (August) said that an estimated 200,000 people have left over the past 10 years. Furthermore, as many as 750,000 others say they are contemplating moving abroad.

Kancho Stoychev, director of the Sofia branch of the Gallup international polling agency, says more than half of the emigrants are young professionals, whose departure profoundly affects the economy.

"The majority of people who are leaving are highly educated, so it's a huge blow to the economy, because the higher education of one person is something quite expensive and the investment was made by the state. So our figures are showing that 50-60 percent of the emigrants are people with higher education, well-trained specialists. That's why they're so easily accepted everywhere in the West."

In Romania, the medical profession appears hardest hit. As many as one-fifth of the country's medical school graduates leave the country each year in search of better pay and opportunities abroad. Some 330,000 people, according to official statistics, have left Romania since 1990.

Professor Marga says the brain drain has become a normal phenomenon in today's open society, which is dominated by globalization and the Internet.

But he says the outward migration of elites from former communist countries has reached alarming proportions and can only be limited in cooperation with Western countries.

He says foreign investment in Southeastern Europe could limit the brain drain from the region and help stabilize local economies. In addition, he tells RFE/RL, scientific research in the region must also be supported by the West.

"When big investors such as Mercedes, Deutsche Bank or Philips come, or other powerful multinationals from Western Europe or the U.S. come here and invest, that is a clear chance to stabilize a highly trained workforce here. Secondly, we won't be able to relaunch research in the region without establishing joint units with Western researchers. We need competitive research units [here], especially labs. [But they] can't be established without Western cooperation. An enormous gap has opened between East and West in postwar decades with regard to research equipment and performance."

Marga concludes, however, that it is up to the region's politicians to step up the pace of reforms and the European integration process to help stabilize the brain exodus.